Leon Bridges Remixes His Retro Style To 'Move The Sound Forward'

May 4, 2018
Originally published on May 4, 2018 4:44 pm

Leon Bridges is more than a Sam Cooke comparison. The Fort Worth, Tex. singer exploded onto the music scene in 2015 thanks to his old-school, doo-wop sound. Three years later, the 28-year-old is proving he has more to offer with his sophomore album Good Thing. He's mixed his signature soul with R&B flavors from later decades. But he's not leaving the past completely behind.

Many of the songs on the album, like "If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)" sound nothing like the soul ballads of Bridges' debut Coming Home. "I'm very thankful for what Coming Home did, but I didn't want to be placed in this box and depended upon as like, this Sam Cooke prodigy," Bridges says. "I wanted to be able to take elements from Coming Home, but move the sound forward."

The tender love songs on Good Thing reach to greater depths than their 2015 precursors. Bridges says love songs are the essence of R&B, and it's especially clear on his single "Bet Ain't Worth The Hand", that he takes the art to heart and writes from experience.

"Forgive You" is written from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend of his. Bridges kept that relationship from his mother, who raised him in a religious household.

"I was taught that if you're not going to pursue a woman in marriage then anything else in between is sin," he explains. "At that time I was living with that certain girl. So I had to really keep that away from my mother."

This narrative also appeared on Coming Home, albeit less brazenly. "I felt that those songs, as innocent as they are, [were a] big step because it just wasn't gospel music," he says.

Songs like "Georgia To Texas" chronicle personal vignettes from Bridges' life, like his birth in Atlanta — "the land of the peach" — and move to Forth Worth.

Bridges clarifies that his distancing himself from old-school stylings doesn't mean they're gone forever. "When I made Coming Home ... I felt it was necessary to tell my narrative and my family's narrative through '60s R&B," he says. "I wanted to kind of prove that this style of music is black music because I've heard ignorant things that people say, as far as that what I make is for white people." He points out that to compare him to classic soul singers doesn't do justice to his own artistry. It removes agency from the musician to assume a white audience.

"I came into the whole music industry with this retro sound ... That's still a part of me," Bridges says. "But that doesn't totally define who I am as an artist."

News Assistant Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Leon Bridges exploded onto the music scene in 2015 with his album "Coming Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING HOME")

LEON BRIDGES: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, I'm coming home to your tender, sweet loving. You're my one and only woman.

KELLY: The music was pure old-school soul - doo-wop, horns, not a trace of cynicism. For his sophomore release "Good Thing," Bridges is trying something a little different. He's mixed his signature soul sound with R&B flavors from later decades. But he's not leaving the past completely behind. When Leon Bridges and I talked, we started with his childhood and a song called "Georgia To Texas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA TO TEXAS")

BRIDGES: (Singing) 504 black girl carried me in her womb to the land of the peach.

I was born in Atlanta, Ga. My family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in the early '90s. And, I mean, I've been there ever since. And, I mean, growing up I, you know, experienced my parents being separated and everything. So...

KELLY: And you were 7 at the time - is that right? - when they split up.

BRIDGES: Yeah, I was about 7 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA TO TEXAS")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Got my mother's eyes and my father's nose, also got my brother's hand-me-down clothes. We had no green, but the love was strong. It was all we'd need to get us along.

KELLY: What is going on in this song? To what extent is this your story that we're hearing now?

BRIDGES: Yeah. It's - you know, it talks about, you know, everything from my mother being a New Orleans native - which is, you know, saying 504 black girl - and ending to my falling in love with music, basically like vignettes of my narrative. And going into this new sound, I wanted to move it forward.

KELLY: And I want to ask you about that because a couple of the songs on here struck me as sounding totally different from anything on your first album. I'm thinking of "If It Feels Good."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT FEELS GOOD (THEN IT MUST BE)")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Live from the funk it's hotter than Texas. Right from the jump, yeah, you got my attention. You give me that stuff. And it's such a blessing, you and I in the light, alone in this heaven. Oh, baby.

Very thankful for what "Coming Home" did. But I didn't want to be placed in this box and depended upon as, like, this Sam Cooke prodigy. I wanted to really take elements from "Coming Home" but, like, move the sound forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT FEELS GOOD (THEN IT MUST BE)")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Oh, tonight looks good on you. Hey, mysterious, we don't have to...

Sam Cooke is of course one of my inspirations. But, you know, I'm inspired by so many different artists.

KELLY: You mentioned not wanting to be put in the box, the Sam Cooke box. And I - is that kind of what it has felt like?

BRIDGES: Yeah. It's - being compared to artists like that doesn't necessarily allow me as an artist to really express myself beyond that. And of course I'm going to do, I mean, what's true to me. But, yeah, it doesn't really do justice to my artistry to only compare me to those type of artists.

KELLY: I'll tell you, what you do do a great job of in this album is write a good love song.

BRIDGES: Yeah (laughter). I mean, I feel like that's the essence of what R&B is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BET AIN'T WORTH THE HAND")

BRIDGES: (Singing) I can't commit. I can't make plans. Sometimes the bet ain't worth the hand. I think you're special. It makes me sad. Don't want to wonder what we could've had. And I hope you understand. Don't get your feelings broken for nothing.

KELLY: There's another song on here which I gather is written from the perspective of a former girlfriend of yours.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVE YOU")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Did I not love enough to keep your attention on and on? Am I the stupid one for doing everything that I did for us? I put a pillow under your hair, gave you tender love and my care. And I didn't make it a thing...

This is the last song that we wrote in the whole session. Yeah, it's just from the perspective of my ex-girlfriend. And, I mean, in the relationship, you know, I just wasn't a good boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVE YOU")

BRIDGES: (Singing) But I forgive you though my friends tell me not to. I forgive you even when it's so hard to.

KELLY: This was a relationship you kept from your mother. Tell me the story there.

BRIDGES: Yeah, I grew up in a religious household. And so I was taught that if you're not going to pursue a woman in marriage, then anything else, like, in between, like, is sin (laughter). And so at the time I was living with that certain girl. And so I had to really - I had to keep that away from my mother.

KELLY: Is that one of the reasons you write love songs on this album, 'cause it was something you couldn't talk about at home, you know, with your mom?

BRIDGES: I would say that's definitely reflective in "Coming Home." And I had to really keep it safe. And I even felt that those songs, as innocent as they are, that that was a big step because it just wasn't gospel music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MRS.")

BRIDGES: (Singing) I remember how it felt the first few times skin to skin, before you knew how to get under mine. If we get...

KELLY: Does this album feel more honest to you if you're taking more risks here, doing something that you might not have felt safe with the first time around?

BRIDGES: Well, the first album, even when I made "Coming Home," I had many different influences. But at that time I felt it was necessary to tell my narrative and my family's narrative through '60s R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MRS.")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Mrs., Mrs...

I wanted to kind of prove that this style of music is black music because I've heard ignorant things that people say as far as, like, that what I make is for white people and the style that I was doing is for white people. It was just what was speaking to me at the time. I think it's important to show that when I came into the whole music industry, you know, with this retro sound, that's still a part of me, but that doesn't totally define who I am as an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BAD NEWS")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Ain't got no riches, ain't got no money that runs long. But I got a heart that's strong and a love that's tall.

KELLY: Leon Bridges, thank you so much.

BRIDGES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BAD NEWS")

BRIDGES: (Singing) Ain't got no name, ain't got no fancy education.

KELLY: Leon Bridges - his new album is "Good Thing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BAD NEWS")

BRIDGES: (Singing) A powdered face on a painted fool. Let me slip through.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Let me slip through.

BRIDGES: (Singing) Why you trying to hold me back?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: I ain't.

BRIDGES: (Singing) I'm just trying to move up front - little more of this, little less of that.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Can you feel me?

BRIDGES: (Singing) Let me come through.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Let me come through.

BRIDGES: (Singing) I'm tired being in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: All right.

BRIDGES: (Singing) I'm just trying to move up front - little more of this, little less of that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.